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Levi Leipheimer on fire in trial at Tour of California

The race leader extends his overall advantage to 36 seconds with victory in 15-mile time trial. Lance Armstrong finishes 14th in the sixth stage.

February 21, 2009|Diane Pucin

SOLVANG — Lance Armstrong was standing high on the pedals, his body swaying back and forth, his familiar cadence on the solo torture that is the cycling time trial. It is physically demanding work riding alone when the road is crowded by cowbell-ringing fans and helicopters make a constant cacophony overhead.

"It was hard," Armstrong said after Friday's 15-mile Stage 6 time trial in the Amgen Tour of California. Hard enough that Armstrong posted only the 14th-best time on the day, but just about right for Armstrong's Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer.

Leipheimer, an unassuming 35-year-old from Santa Rosa who is often content to do hard work to help others, won the stage in a time of 30 minutes 40.524 seconds.

The two-time defending champion increased his overall lead to 36 seconds over Garmin-Slipstream's Dave Zabriskie. Columbia-Highroad's Michael Rogers is third, 46 seconds back, with Armstrong sixth overall, 1:46 behind Leipheimer.

Today's 88.9-mile stage will take riders from Santa Clarita to Pasadena with a finish at the Rose Bowl after a trip along Soledad Canyon Road and the Angeles Crest Highway. It will be a place for the sprinters to shine, Zabriskie said, but there will be danger in Sunday's final stage from Rancho Bernardo up Palomar Mountain, where there is snow on the roadside and an opportunity for other teams to attack Astana and try to steal the race from Leipheimer.

But if that happens it will make one of the team domestiques, Armstrong, unhappy.

"There's no pressure on me," Armstrong said. "This is all about Levi now. While I was doing my race today I was listening to hear the split times of Levi and Zabriskie. We'll be riding to get Levi this title."

Leipheimer was an uncomplaining assist rider for Astana star Alberto Contador last year, accepting a second-place finish at the Spanish Vuelta behind Contador after their team was barred from racing in the Tour de France because of previous doping scandals.

And there is intrigue for this year's Tour de France involving the question of whether Armstrong, who has won a record seven Tour de France races, or Contador, who won in 2007 and then couldn't defend his title in 2008, will be the team leader when the race starts July 4 in Monaco.

But in February the team belongs to Leipheimer. As the last man down the start ramp, he was aware of how his competitors were doing. As he passed the time check in first place, he said, his mind was aware of what his ears heard, but his body didn't even care.

"I just felt good," he said.

Leipheimer said his performance Friday -- eight seconds faster than Zabriskie, who is from Salt Lake City, and 22 seconds faster than Rogers, who is from Australia -- was especially satisfying. Rogers is a three-time world champion in the time trial and Zabriskie is the U.S. time trial champion.

"I told Dave on the podium, here we are in America, I'm on the podium next to one of the best time trialists in the world, this is just getting more and more special," Leipheimer said.

One prominent rider didn't even make it to the start line. Italy's Ivan Basso of Liquigas, who is considered a strong contender for the Giro d'Italia in May, withdrew at the last minute after jamming his handlebars into his knee while warming up for the time trial. The knee swelled and doctors told Basso not to ride.

Otherwise, the fine weather and dry roads meant no accidents on the course.

Gustav Larsson of Team Saxo Bank, who started 81st of 107 men who rode the course, posted a time of 30.57 and his lead held until Zabriskie cranked up his engine.

But Leipheimer has ridden with confidence from the start. He took over the lead in Monday's hilly Stage 2 and hasn't looked back. Even with two Tour of California championships, Leipheimer said winning No. 3 won't be easy.

"Having won twice, that makes me respect [Armstrong] that much more," Leipheimer said. "I don't know how he won the Tour de France seven times in a row. Each time the pressure grows. Having Lance around . . . it pushes you to be the best you can be."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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